February brings the first hint of lengthening days. Beyond the snow and cold, we start to really believe spring is on the horizon, with its promise of warmth and new growth. This can be a hopeful time, with a sense of new beginnings. In schools in particular, our children are just settling into second semester, many older students having just completed their midterm exams. Much like the opening of the school year, this midyear point provides a fresh start. However, we don’t want to close the door on the first half of the school year and simply look ahead. It’s also an important opportunity for reflection that we don’t want to miss. Whether the outcomes were positive or negative, the grades good or bad, they contain important information for students and parents to discover and discuss.
Certainly parents want to acknowledge and celebrate good grades. But the real praise should be reserved for the hard work and specifically identified habits and behaviors that resulted in such success. Parents should help their children reflect on the past semester, thinking about how and when they studied, what they chose to focus on, when they brought their homework on a long car ride, the night they stayed home instead of going to the movies with friends before a big test, the times they went to teachers for extra help, their practices of eating a good breakfast perhaps, plugging their phones in downstairs or getting to bed at a reasonable time on most school nights. We should help the kids be curious about their actions, behaviors, habits and choices, to recognize and name them as having contributed to their success.
We know that awareness of how one has achieved a positive outcome is more important than the achievement itself, as that’s how one assures repetition of such success. Likely it’s been some combination of hard work, conscientiousness and/or genuine interest that has led to a student’s academic success. Sometimes, however, it’s just good luck. And this should be acknowledged as well. Perhaps a student’s got a super easy teacher, or a lot of undone homework went unnoticed or undocumented. It’s important to acknowledge such good fortune. There is nothing wrong with being delighted by it, but if that’s all there was behind an objective “success”, knowing this is critical moving forward. Because “luck” is not in a student’s control, we wouldn’t want him or her to rely on the same behaviors moving forward.
On the other hand, parents may be extremely disappointed with a child’s grades. It’s important to keep in mind that no matter what this child appears to demonstrate outwardly, they are likely just as disappointed. If parents focus too intensely on the outcome, on the grades themselves, they risk generating a sense of shame, intensifying a child’s negative sense of self-worth and discouraging confidence. We know that among other things, children need to believe in themselves to achieve success. Parents need to be careful to avoid working against what’s in the best interest of their child’s long-term growth and ultimate success by focusing on the short-term with impulsive or negative responses.
In fact, parents’ responses to bad grades or disappointing outcomes shouldn’t be that different from how they respond to success. They should demonstrate curiosity and engage their children in the same type of reflection, considering this time an opportunity for nurturing the self-awareness necessary for growth and change. What behaviors, habits and practices were in place (or not) that led to such an outcome? How did this semester compare to others? What activities were children engaged in that might have been new or different from before? Or perhaps, what have they discontinued? Though parents should avoid punishing their children for a lack of success, structures may need to be adjusted or limits may need to be implemented following an unsuccessful semester. If you’ve given your child a car and the freedom to use it as he or she desires, taking away the car altogether won’t promote a change in academic behavior. But perhaps following a reflective examination of behaviors and patterns of use, together you may realize a need for limits. Perhaps your child used to come home on the bus and get right to work on homework, but without the structure of the bus, they now delay coming home until closer to dinner, and by the after dinner hour, they’ve got much less energy and focus than at 3:00pm, which has affected the amount and quality of studying. Or together you may discover that the car privileges had little to do with academic behavior. Unrelated behaviors like napping after school, not eating breakfast, not keeping an agenda or cutting class might be to blame. So taking away unrelated car privileges might have little effect on future success. Better extrinsic motivation might come from holding your child’s keys until they’ve eaten in the morning, or checking their agenda before allowing them to leave the house with the car — to support their practice of keeping one.
Whatever a child’s grades look like at the end of a semester, it’s critical that parents avoid impulsive or punitive responses. Research demonstrates that rather than encourage behavioral change, punishment does little beyond satisfying parents’ own anxiety or anger, ultimately discouraging communication and distancing their children. We need to control our own emotions and anxiety around grades and remind ourselves that what we really want for our children is a positive academic experience and academic fulfillment. Modeling curiosity and pausing for reflection are certainly in the service of these long-term goals.
Hayley Zinn Rowthorn, MA, 6th Yr, is an Educational Therapist and owner of REALize Learning, LLC. A Connecticut public school administrator and teacher for over 20 years, she brings to her work extensive and varied educational experience, including substantial administrative experience, a background in program development and design, a deep understanding of the critical relationship among curriculum, instruction, assessment and professional development, and a life-long commitment to excellence and equity in education.